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Budget crisis stalls conservation

Judith Lewis Mernit | Jan 16, 2009 05:35 PM

If you squinted hard at the brief and fuzzy “State of the State” address California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered Thursday morning you might have detected a glimmer of good news for environmentalists: A controversial water conveyance project the governor has been pushing for – a canal that would suck water from the Sacramento River to feed the state’s thirsty southern half – may have been forced on hold. The partisan budget rift has gone so deep – indeed, said the governor, “Conan’s sword could not have cleaved our political system in two so cleanly” – that all talk of “infrastructure or water,” among other things, has been suspended. At least for now.

Little comfort that is, though, for conservationists enduring what should have been a busy and well-funded winter. California voters have scarcely ever said no to a single ballot measure funding clean water and parks, and the last eight years of elections have piled up a healthy kitty for everything from wetland restoration to trail repair to city aquariums, all funded with grants tied to bonds. But since a state without a budget and a $42 billion deficit looks about as good to an investor as a vagrant without a van or a bank account does to a bank, California hasn't been selling many bonds lately. “Unfortunately, the nationwide credit crunch and State budget woes have combined to close the bond market to California,” State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said in a statement. And “until the Legislature and Governor adopt a budget that keeps California out of the poorhouse,” that’s not likely to change much.

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Waking up to coal's other mess

Jonathan Thompson | Jan 16, 2009 08:20 AM

Raymond "Squeak" Hunt is not one to be ignored. He's not afraid to speak his mind (even if it means building a giant billboard to do so). More often than not, he's holding a large, sharp knife (he butchers sheep for a living). And he's prone to spouting aphorisms which, though they don't always make sense and are highly irreverent, can be pretty damned funny.

Yet, a lot of people have ignored him for a long time. Squeak, as his friends call him, has for decades been battling the owners of the San Juan Generating Station, a massive coal-burning power plant that sits just up the road from Hunt's house and business in Waterflow, N.M.. Enviros have long taken issue with the smoke from  the plant's stacks (and the haze it blankets the region with). But only a few activists have listened when it comes to Hunt's big fight: Against the solid waste that comes out of coal plants.

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Western legislators stake out nuclear positions

Marty Durlin | Jan 15, 2009 09:10 AM

President-elect Barack Obama says he favors nuclear energy, and yesterday his Energy secretary nominee Steven Chu said he intends to fast-track the construction of new domestic nuclear plants. At the same time, Obama is against the proposed high-level nuclear storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. With just days remaining before Obama takes office, Western politicians are staking out their own positions on nuclear issues.

This week Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and his Republican colleague Sen. John Ensign stressed unity in their opposition to Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"At this time when we have the best chance of killing Yucca Mountain once and for all, we should not be divided as a state," said Ensign.  Reid said Yucca Mountain -- already costing more than $15 billion -- is "a symbol of everything bad about government waste," and pledged to make deep budget cuts to the project, even if some Nevadans employed there may lose their jobs.

"Yucca Mountain is a safety issue for the people of this country. We are not going to be deterred from where we think the Yucca Mountain waste should go. It should stay where it is," said Reid, advocating that each nuclear facility provide its own storage.

Meanwhile Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) proposed up to $7 billion in a national economic recovery package for cleanup work at Hanford -- a bomb factory during World War II -- and other DOE nuclear sites. The DOE has also offered a $6 billion proposal to reduce the size of large contaminated sites and complete cleanup at smaller sites. Murray made her comments a confirmation hearing for Peter Orszag, nominated for director of the Office of Management and Budget. 

In 2008, the DOE estimated total cleanup costs at $225 billion -- $100 billion more than the year before.

For more on nuclear cleanup, see HCN's articles, Nuclear Crossroads and Mountain of Doubt.






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A pack of problems for wolves

Jodi Peterson | Jan 15, 2009 06:30 AM

This past year, the West’s wolves have had an even rougher time of it than usual. In the Northern Rockies, they’ve been bounced on and off the endangered species list, and in Yellowstone, more than usual have died. In the Southwest, it’s back to the drawing board after reintroduction plans failed miserably.

After the Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolf in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming last February, hunters immediately shot more than a dozen. Enviros sued, and last September the agency agreed to keep the predators listed until it could determine whether wolves would survive long-term without Endangered Species Act protections. That decision apparently didn’t require much extra thought – the agency just announced that it will again take wolves off the list (except in Wyoming, where the state has yet to come up with a reasonable management plan). Expect another lawsuit.

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Renewable energy v. renewable energy

Jeff Chen | Jan 14, 2009 06:05 AM

Setbacks are an ongoing theme for NGOs and renewable energy companies that are promoting the use of sustainable resources. Now wind farms are hearing about another setback – a physical one, that is, and for justifiable reasons. The funny thing is, they’re hearing it from other renewable energy advocates.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that an off-the-grid community is resisting the development of a wind farm just west of Taos, NM. Residents are concerned about health risks from low-frequency vibrations, flashing strobe lights, annoying shadows, turbines killing birds and bats, and landscape blight. However, a larger issue is at hand.

Keely Meagan’s opinion article in a December issue of The New Mexican is headlined, “Regulation must precede wind-power building.” She’s referring to the state and federal regulations that need to be created in order to facilitate our nation’s switch from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources. Meagan notes that county regulations have no influence on wind farms proposed on state-leased land.

Many residents in the Cielito Lindo subdivision of Taos, where homes rely primarily on solar energy, have vocalized their objections online at and also at a Taos County Planning Commission meeting. The group of 18 solar-powered homes lies adjacent to the proposed site. In December, the Commission approved variances for the towering turbines, a move that many feel violate county land-use regulations.

The county limit for structure height is 27 feet, but anyone can apply for exemptions. And though the bulk of the citizens at the meeting were against the wind farm, according to The New Mexican, the commission granted a 425-foot limit for the proposed turbines – a height almost 16 times the county limit.

David Carpenter, president of the Cielito Lindo subdivision, says, “An industrial anything is not appropriate out here.”

A similar situation in Wisconsin led concerned citizens to draw up wind ordinances. And now a couple of wind energy companies have signed the New York Wind Power Code of Ethics.

Taos Wind Power, the wind energy company whose 27 wind turbines are in development, has thousands of acres of land in New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana slated for future wind development. But proposed wind farms may see new hurdles in the near future.

A meeting last week in Santa Fe brought residents, clean energy advocates, state officials, and two wind industry representatives together for a conversation. Regarding the meeting, Meagan, who represents the New Mexico Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy and Sustainability, said in an email, "Big wind is no longer quite so clean, green and easy as portrayed by the corporations profiting from wind." She stressed that community needs must be considered for alternative energy development.

Bill Lockwood, president and CEO of Taos Wind Power, says he was unaware about last week's meeting. "I live here, I have a wife here, I have a son here. I've lived out there on the mesa with solar panels. I'm walking the talk."

A book by medical practitioner Nina Pierpont about the health impacts of wind turbine noise is due later this year. Her clinical name for it is Wind Turbine Syndrome. Lockwood maintains that Pierpont's research has no scientific evidence.


Unnatural selection indeed

Jodi Peterson | Jan 13, 2009 08:20 AM

Twenty years ago, I remember my grandpa complaining that the white-tail bucks he shot each fall were smaller than the monster deer he'd taken as a young man. The trophy heads in the basement of his South Dakota farmhouse all looked about the same to me, and I chalked up his grousing to nostalgia and the magnifying qualities of time.

Now it looks like he was right. A new study from the National Academy of Sciences supports the long-held notion that by hunting animals, fish and plants, we change them -- and not necessarily for the better. Researchers in the U.S. and Canada found that 29 "harvested" species ranging from bighorn to ginseng evolved three times as quickly, on average, as species that aren't hunted by humans. Over 30 years, the harvested creatures became 20 percent smaller and began reproducing 25 percent sooner. The scientists also found that earlier reproduction wasn't as successful -- fish, for example, produced far fewer eggs than they would have if they spawned a year or two later.

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Shell game

Terray Sylvester | Jan 13, 2009 03:15 AM
Filed under: Water , Energy

Shell Oil has filed a claim on about an eighth of the spring flow in Colorado's Yampa River. The company hopes to divert the water to an as-yet-nonexistent reservoir near the town of Maybell in the northwest corner of the state. From the 45,000-acre foot lake, the water would flow to oil shale operations and be put to a variety of ends. It might be used for processing the shale itself or generating electricity, or for dust suppression and slaking the thirst of employees.

It'll be awhile before Shell starts diverting the water. As the Denver Post reports, it's the first major claim on the river, and is likely to be challenged. But focusing too closely on the Yampa misses a larger point. Shell and other oil shale speculators, such as Chevron and EGL, have been collecting water rights on the Colorado and White rivers for decades in hopes of exploiting the near mythical shale deposits that lie beneath Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Shell's Yampa maneuver is just the latest in a series of water grabs that could push the state up against its obligation to the Upper Colorado Basin Compact of 1948, and slurp the water from existing users in the process.

According to page 109 of a 2007 Colorado River Water Conservation District report, the state's annual water demand may currently fall about 300,000 acre feet short of the limit defined in the Compact. Bart Miller of Western Resource Advocates says that large-scale oil shale extraction could very well require that much water. If Colorado overdraws its share of the upper basin allotment, downstream states are sure to complain. Belts will have to be tightened in Colorado, and water rights could be tossed into turmoil. 

But it's not just a compact call that could rearrange Colorado's water. Though the oil companies hold about 50,000 acre feet of ditch rights on the western slope, they aren't currently exercising all of them. In water jargon, such unused rights are termed, "conditional." When the companies find a way to make a buck from the shale, they'll "perfect" those conditional rights and people drawing water from more junior claims -- or from water leased from the oil companies -- will have to seek water elsewhere. 

Oil shale development is a long way from commercial viability, but when and if the goo from the Green River Formation begins filling barrels, push will come to shove. Colorado will have to choose between many thirsty throats: farmers, municipalities, recreational and environmental concerns -- and dirty energy on the western slope. 

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Understanding agriculture...and farmers too!

Felice Pace | Jan 12, 2009 07:15 AM
Filed under: Agriculture

If you know farmers, you know that most of them can be relied upon to provide gloomy reports looking backward and gloomier forecasts going forward. If most of the farmers I know have a good year, they will not talk about it but instead will tell you about all the bad things that are about to happen to erase any gains they’ve made. If we were to judge the status of our agricultural economy based on these statements, we would wonder why anyone engages in agriculture and we would be inclined to believe – as is often claimed – that farmers chose farming for the “life-style” rather than for profits. I’ve found that a better indicator of how the farm fared is the rig that the farmer is driving. A new pick-up or highway cruiser indicates that last year was a particularly good year on the farm.

There are undoubtedly a large number of farms in the West and elsewhere where the desire for the farm lifestyle figures prominently in owners’ motivations. Most of these farms are small (under 100 acres) and most of them receive a significant amount of family income from non-farm employment. But the bulk of agricultural production in this country is from large farms and these farms are getting larger and more profitable.

In late December the USDA’s Economic Research Service released figures on the agricultural economy in 2007. Net farm income was up over 50% over 2006, setting a new record. With the exception of Wyoming - where net farm income fell significantly in 2007 - states in the region followed the national trend. In fact the northern tier of western states (Washington, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota) saw farm income increase more than 20% over 2006. In Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho there were 3,500 fewer farms, but those farms generated $7.5 billion more revenue.

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Water activists want paradigm shift from Obama

Emily Underwood | Jan 12, 2009 06:55 AM

Over 100 U.S. water activists put their heads together in Fall 2008 and published a hefty, ambitious report called “A Blueprint for Clean Water.” The Waterkeeper Alliance report is directed at the incoming Obama administration, and proposes a whopping 58 reforms ranging from desalination to global warming.

Curling up with a cup of coffee and reading about the management of ballast water might not sound like your idea of a cozy Sunday afternoon, but the Blueprint is remarkably engaging. Each section is written by a different activist who cares passionately about his or her subject of expertise.  Some of the proposals tackle large issues, such as free trade and environmental justice. The section on dams calls for a paradigm shift in hydro:

Antiquated water laws and erroneous assumptions in science, economics and engineering have caused development that is not sustainable for the next century… Alternative solutions for managing our water supplies are urgently required to remove unnecessary dams, remove people from harm’s way, and to restore the free ecological services that rivers have always provided.

Other chapters target specific policies. The Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 2169), for example, had its knees bashed in by the Bush administration when the definition of protected waterways was narrowed to exclude "isolated" waterways, putting many western  wetlands and intermittent streams at risk.  

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The Big Melt continues

Michelle Nijhuis | Jan 12, 2009 03:22 AM

We know coal and other dirty fuels help heat up the planet, but it looks like they're also messing with Western water supplies. Scientists at the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (press release here) have found that when soot from power plants and diesel engines settles on mountain snow, the darker snow absorbs more heat and can melt as much as a month early -- meaning less of that crucial runoff in late spring and summer. Check out HCN's coverage of the similarly doom-y effects of dust storms in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.


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